The “aggressive attitude” on benefit sanctions that was taken by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the coalition years of 2013 to 2015 is “back with a vengeance”, MPs have been warned.
A debate on DWP’s policy on benefit sanctions heard this week* that jobcentres have been told to “up their game” and increase the number of sanctions they are handing to those receiving out-of-work benefits.
Chris Stephens, the SNP MP who secured the debate, said he had even heard that there was “inter-office competition”, with DWP offices pushing each other to achieve higher sanction rates.
He said one autistic person from Glasgow, who had severe anxiety and extreme difficulty communicating, was sanctioned after she failed to attend in-person appointments, even though it had been agreed three years earlier that she could have telephone meetings instead as a reasonable adjustment.
Stephens also told fellow MPs of the pressure placed on DWP work coaches to ensure claimants attend jobcentre meetings.
Disability News Service reported in March how a DWP whistleblower warned that harsh new policies that were forcing more disabled people to attend weekly face-to-face jobcentre meetings could lead to benefit claimants taking their own lives.
Weeks later, a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
Stephens said disabled claimants were being “thrown into a group of those most likely to get a sanction”, and he called for an examination into the relative rate of sanctions for disabled claimants.
He said that DWP figures on sanctions “suggest that the aggressive attitude we saw between 2013 and 2015 is back among us”.
He added later: “Sanctions appear to be back with a vengeance, and that shift of approach requires parliamentary scrutiny.”
He called for a “change in approach to put the claimant and their needs at the heart of the social security system”.
Kenny MacAskill, an Alba MP, said DWP workers were being “threatened with punishment, and potentially with dismissal, if they do not get their number of sanctions up”.
He said: “We know from [the PCS union] and other whistleblowers that many people worry that if they do not enforce a sanction against an individual, they will face consequences.
“That is simply unacceptable. That is not simply from the PCS; we know it from welfare rights officers.”
Debbie Abrahams, who like Stephens** has investigated sanctions as a member of the Commons work and pensions committee, said she was concerned that a return to the policies of the early 2010s, which led to the death of David Clapson – who died in July 2013 after being left destitute by having his benefits sanctioned – could lead to more claimant deaths.
She added: “There is currently no evidence that supports the efficacy – let alone the humanity – of sanctions at all.”
John McDonnell, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, said: “Like others, my experience of conditionality and the use of sanctions has largely centred on the impact on constituents who live the most chaotic of lives.
“They have difficulty complying with the various requirements that are made of them and, in some instances, actually even understanding the conditions that are attached to them.
“Living those chaotic lives means that they become intensely vulnerable.”
He said the number of claimants being sanctioned was “quite staggering”, with 115,274 universal credit claimants serving a sanction in August, more than three times the pre-pandemic figure of 36,771 in October 2019.
McDonnell said a report by Dr David Webster, a leading researcher on unemployment and sanctions at the University of Glasgow, showed the average length of a sanction to be about 11 weeks.
He said too many people had lost their lives, sometimes due to suicide, because of the pressure of DWP’s sanctions policy.
Labour’s Karen Buck, a shadow DWP minister, said Webster’s research showed 6.4 per cent of universal credit claimants who are subject to conditions as part of their claim were serving a benefit sanction in August, more than double the pre-pandemic peak of 3.1 per cent in October 2019.
She said: “We should be under no illusion that sanctions are just a slap on the wrist for claimants.
“Typically, sanctions involve the withdrawal of 100 per cent of the universal credit standard allowance, and even the reduced rate for the lowest level of sanction is 40 per cent of the standard allowance.”
She said she feared that the government was “more concerned with signalling toughness than with improving employment outcomes, and that the purpose of conditionality has been twisted towards catching people out rather than maintaining contact with the labour market”.
Buck said she also feared that the number of sanctions “has shot up because the government have lost control of the sanctions regime and no longer know what they are doing”.
Labour’s Grahame Morris called for a “moratorium” on the use of sanctions and an end to the “sanctions culture”, which “leaves the poorest in destitution” and places sick and disabled people “in extreme circumstances in which they can often see no way out”.
He said: “Sanctions should not be used routinely; they should instead be reserved as a last resort for the most extreme circumstances and cases. This is a matter of life and death.”
Responding to the debate, employment minister Guy Opperman said it was “certainly not the case” that there had been a change of sanctions policy and that he was “not aware” of any sanctions regime that incentivised DWP staff to apply sanctions.
But he failed to explain why the number of sanctions had shot up compared with the months preceding the pandemic.
He said that nearly all sanctions (98.2 per cent) were imposed for missing a meeting with a work coach, which “can be quickly and simply resolved by attending another appointment”, while about half of these sanctions are “resolved” through the claimant asking for a “mandatory reconsideration” of the sanction decision.
He said: “Where benefit claimants have vulnerabilities, safeguards exist to ensure that they are not sanctioned inappropriately.”
He said work coaches “have the discretion to switch off work-related activities for a period of time”, which allows them “to support vulnerable claimants and provide tailored support”.
And he said there was a “well-established system of hardship payments, which are available as a safeguard if a claimant demonstrates that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs” due to sanctions.
But he repeatedly refused to explain why the number of sanctions had risen, when asked to do so by John McDonnell.
*The debate started at 2.30pm and ended at 4pm
**Chris Stephens has now left the committee for a place on the SNP frontbench
Picture: Guy Opperman (left) and Chris Stephens taking part in the debate
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